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In everyday terms ”heterosexuality” is taken for granted as the ”normal” form of sexuality. It is only since the 1970s that sociologists began to challenge this commonsense view and to reconceptualize heterosexuality as an institutional arrangement implicated in the social exclusion of sexual ”others” and the perpetuation of gender divisions.
One impetus for this critical approach to hetero-sexuality was the development of social constructionism, exemplified by Gagnon and Simon’s Sexual Conduct (1973), in which they argued that human sexuality, far from being ordained by nature, was the product of social scripts. At the same time a new generation of sociologists, inspired by the feminist and gay movements, began to question male dominated heterosexuality. While gay scholars emphasized heterosexuality’s marginalization and oppression of homosexuality, feminists focused on gender inequality within heterosexual relationships. The most significant contributions came from lesbian feminists, particularly Monique Wittig in France and Adrienne Rich in the USA. In a series of articles published between 1976 and 1981, Wittig analyzed the social categories ”women” and ”men” as products of men’s appropriation of women’s bodies and labor through the heterosexual marriage contract. Rich (1980) coined the term ”compulsory heterosexuality” to capture the idea that heterosexuality was imposed upon women through the erasure of lesbianism from history and by a range of social practices that constrained women into subjection to men.
In the 1980s debates on sexuality were increasingly influenced by Michel Foucault (1978). For Foucault, power produces sexuality rather than repressing it. Concepts such as homosexuality and heterosexuality do not name pre-existing categories; rather they bring those categories into being as an effect of discourse/power. By the 1990s, Foucault’s ideas had become incorporated into queer theory, which seeks to destabilize the boundaries between heterosexuality and homosexuality, interrogate the binaries of gay/straight and man/ woman and to bring to light the instability and contingency of sexual identities. While queer theory and feminism have differing priorities, both question the naturalness of sexuality and both, to some extent at least, link the binary divide of gender with that between heterosexuality and homosexuality. This is particularly evident in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), a text that is both feminist and queer. The object of Butler’s critique is the heterosexual matrix, the regulatory fictions that link sex, gender, and heterosexuality together as a seemingly natural, compulsory order.
Butler, like other queer theorists, says little about what goes on within heterosexual relations. Other feminists, however, continued to be concerned with gender inequality within heterosexuality, defined broadly not just as a form of sexual desire and conduct, but as involving wider social relations between women and men. Much feminist work since the 1990s, rather than treating heterosexuality as a monolithic oppressive entity, addresses its different facets: as institution, identity, experience, and practice. This enabled more nuanced understandings of the ways in which heterosexuality shapes sexual and non-sexual lives and acknowledges variability in heterosexual experience and practice. The appreciation of diversity in personal and domestic lives, along with advances in lesbian and gay rights in many countries, has led some to question whether heterosexuality is losing its hegemonic status. Most sociologists are more cautious, however, arguing that heterosexuality may have become less compulsory, but it is nonetheless still institutionalized.
- Foucault, M. (1979) The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. Allen Lane, London.
- Ingraham, C. (ed.) (2004) Thinking Straight: The Power, the Promise and the Paradox of Heterosexuality. Routledge, New York.
- Rich, A. (1980) Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Signs 5 (4): 631—60.
- Richardson, D. (ed.) (1996) Theorising Heterosexuality. Open University Press, Buckingham.